Tuesday, May 19, 2009
J M Barrie
I have always been interested in JM Barrie, all 4 foot ten inches of him. Perhaps it’s because I tread the same ground as him, and see his name on the prize boards here at the school and his photographs on the wall, even the section of desk he carved his name on. I’ve never been a great fan of Peter Pan although, like many other fairy stories, the play has a rich dark heart. Perhaps it has a darker heart than we think.
Jonny Depp’s recent portrayal as Jimmy with the luscious Kate Winslet as Sylvia Llewelyn Davies in ‘Finding Neverland’ presents the view of Barrie as a kindly uncle who, after their parents’ tragic and early death (both the Llewelyn Davies parents died of cancer aged 44) adopted their five sons, Jack, Peter, Michael, Nicholas and George, having met the family while walking his St Bernard in Kensington Gardens. The truth is more sinister. I do not believe that Barrie was a sexual predator or paedophile, though some passages in his stories, especially ‘The White Bird’, an early version of Peter Pan, are pretty peculiar- “David and I had a tremendous adventure. It was this - he passed the night with me... I took [his boots] off with all the coolness of an old hand, and then I placed him on my knee, and removed his blouse. This was a delightful experience, but I think I remained wonderfully calm until I came somewhat too suddenly to his little braces, which agitated me profoundly... I cannot proceed in public with the disrobing of David.'
In fact Barrie seems curiously asexual and was possibly impotent. His marriage, from 1894-1909, appears to have been unconsummated. His interest in children seemed born less out of a desire to corrupt them and more from his own obsession to return to a childlike state of innocence, before the world intervened. He probably felt he had a lot to escape from. Barrie was damaged goods by his early teens. Ignored by his father and the victim of psychological abuse from his mother, who never recovered from the death of Barrie’s older brother, and who possibly blamed the younger boy in some way for the skating accident that led to his death. His mother addressed James constantly as David, the name of his dead brother and to appease her he often wore his dead brother's clothes.
The case against Barrie, most recently stated in a brilliant if speculative new biography by Piers Dudgeon, is that he was fascinated by the power of manipulation and set out to control the lives of a regiment of young children – not just the Llewelyn Davies’- with invariably tragic results. The ghosts of dead or damaged children stalk Barrie’s work. He befriended for instance a little girl called Margaret Henley, who used to call him “my friendy”, lisped as “my fwendy”. The girl died aged 6 but lived on in Barrie’s world as Wendy in Peter Pan.
Barrie was fascinated by the writer George Du Maurier, author of the Victorian sensation ‘Trilby’ in which an innocent girl is controlled by hypnosis by the evil Svengali. Barrie was so obsessed with the book and the man that he followed Du Maurier about but never dared meet him, once reportedly running away when the man approached him. He called the St Bernard dog that he and his wife adored Porthos, after the St Bernard in one of Du Maurier’s other novels, Peter Ibbetsen. This St Bernard was to make an appearance in Peter Pan but more immediately significant is that George De Maurier’s daughter was Sylvia who married Arthur Llewelyn Davies and had 5 boys, the children Barrie “accidentally met” and befriended in Kensington Gardens. Sylvia’s brother was the famous actor Gerald Du Maurier (who met his future wife rehearsing in the Barrie play ‘The Admirable Crichton’). Barrie also befriended this family, especially Gerald’s young daughters, one of whom was to ascribe many of her later problems to the early part of her life and her strange relationship with both her father and her “Uncle Jimmy”. The name of this young girl? Daphne Du Maurer, who was to go on and write another classic of psychological manipulation and control, ‘Rebecca’.
In ‘The White Bird’ Barrie tells the story of his meeting with Sylvia and her family. The story is narrated by Capt. W, much taken to walking with his St Bernard Dog Porthos in Kensington Gardens. Sylvia Llewlyn Davies becomes ‘Mary’ (the name of Barrie’s wife), the young George Llewllyn Davies becomes ‘David’ (the name of Barrie’s dead brother). The Captain’s motives are undisguised:
'It was a scheme conceived in a flash, and ever since relentlessly pursued - to burrow under Mary's influence with the boy, expose her to him in all her vagaries, take him utterly from her.' All while Mary, was 'culpably obtuse to my sinister design'.
Also in The Little White Bird, the narrator declares, 'I once had a photograph taken of David being hanged on a tree', which he sends to the child's mother: 'You can't think of all the subtle ways of grieving her I have.'
The original name for Peter Pan was ‘The Boy who hated Mothers’. Poor Peter had as a baby gone to play with the fairies in the park and had then found the nursery window shut against him and his mother nursing another child. Before the role of Captain Hook was changed, partly to boost the role of the actor in the original play, none other than Gerald Du Maurier, the character of Peter Pan did not represent the force of good against evil and could be more logically seen as a diabolical half-child who, shut out of normal life, stole other childrens’ souls.
While Sylvia was on her deathbed Barrie, then divorced, said that she had agreed to marry her, a story that her sons never believed. He also forged his name on Sylvia’s will to make it appear that her wish was for Barrie to become guardian of her children. In reality, Sylvia had left a handwritten document, which said: 'What I wd like wd be if Jenny wd come to Mary & that the two together wd be looking after the boys & the house.' Mary was the boys' longstanding and faithful nanny, and Jenny was Mary's sister. Barrie changed Jenny to Jimmy. The ‘error’ in transcribing was never challenged, unbelievably, by the Llewelyn Davies boys’ many other relatives.
Perhaps all this is overstated. It's a fact that few people that knew him closely had a bad word to say about him. Perhaps also the era he lived in with the grim shadow of the Great War and its slaughter of the innocents casts a gloomy light on everything he wrote and the events that surrounded it.
DH Laurence said that “JM Barrie has a fatal touch for those he loves.”. The Llewelyn boys felt that touch most keenly. George was killed in the trenches in 1915, Michael drowned in a suicide pact with another young man in 1921, Jack died from lung disease and Peter waited until 1960 to throw himself in front of a train. Only Nicholas escaped, his attitude to Barrie unsoured.